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Can Republicans learn to love the National Endowment for the Arts?

Dec 2, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 12
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On November 14, after a delay of nearly nine months, the Senate confirmed the appointment of David Gelernter to serve on the National Council on the Arts. A painter, writer, and computer-science professor at Yale (to say nothing of his being a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard), Gelernter brings important gifts to the council, which acts as the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Arts.

President Bush's first chairman of the NEA, Michael Hammond, died suddenly on January 29, six days after taking office. One can see why, in the months that followed, Republicans made little progress toward defining a public art policy. There was, after all, a war going on, and the White House had other priorities. But the announcement on October 22 that Bush had chosen the poet Dana Gioia as Hammond's replacement signaled things were moving again. If the Senate acts quickly to confirm Gioia as chairman of the NEA in the new year, we should see . . . well, what should we see? What ought the Bush administration to be doing about the arts?

The new chairman of the NEA faces real problems. A recalcitrant bureaucracy, protected by the civil-service system, that has long conceived itself a bastion of liberal sanity among Neanderthal conservatives. A mainstream media so distrustful that most arts reporters believe anyone Bush appoints must be merely a placeholder, or even an active underminer, until the Republicans muster the political will to abolish the NEA. An art world dominated by the likes of Amiri Baraka, the poet laureate of New Jersey--and declaimer of such lines as "Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?"

The NEA's relations with conservatives aren't all that great, either. The split between wealthy Republican donors and grass-roots Republican voters is measured not just by issues such as abortion but by support for the established museums and orchestras--most of which have agendas these days unpalatable to the people who just gave Bush a midterm election victory. Meanwhile, the NEA has acted for several years as though its primary mission were to get itself ignored, running a communications office that seeks mostly to suppress information.

That's perhaps reasonable, given the endowment's lack of direction; if you haven't got any governing philosophy, the best thing may be to hide the fact. But the result has been the alienation of the conservative press, which now carries arts news mostly for the comedy. Thanks to ideologically motivated leaks from the NEA's bureaucrats, the hard news about the endowment is reported primarily in the left-leaning arts pages of the New York Times. It won't be enough for the new chairman of the NEA to do great things. Whoever Gioia finds to act as communications director is going to have to mend a lot of fences with the conservative press, convincing the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the New Criterion (and, yes, even The Weekly Standard) that the NEA has a sensible philosophy for public art--and is willing to do the work to have that philosophy issue in results.

Fortunately, Dana Gioia is capable of accomplishing that. He is a major figure in American letters, experienced in business, and a man with a passion for great art. And the press Gioia has so far received has been astonishingly favorable. A November 2 editorial in the New York Times suggested that "Gioia may be just the person to begin leading the NEA back to its original mission." The Times meant by that the refinancing of individuals such as Karen Finley, famous for dowsing her naked body in chocolate sauce to the delight and delectation of college audiences everywhere, but at least the paper wasn't attacking Gioia.

The most negative comment in the Times's October 28 profile of the poet was a prediction that conservatives in Congress would find something "sinister" in the libretto he wrote for the opera "Nosferatu"--which is, in fact, an astonishingly direct Catholic work, featuring a heroine who calls (in Latin) upon the Blessed Virgin to help her get the vampire spiked.

If this is the worst Gioia faces, he's in the clear, and--together with a National Council on the Arts that now features David Gelernter--he can begin the work of forming a serious policy for the NEA.

--J. Bottum